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Let’s Talk America: Unearthed and Reconsidered

Update 4/1/13:  Look over my summary report of what we’ve gleaned so far from this great discussion!  And keep adding comments here so we can learn even more.

Some of you may remember the 2004/2005 national dialogue project “Let’s Talk America.” LTA was a joint project of the Utne Institute, Conversation Cafe, World Cafe, and NCDD run in/around 2004.  The project aimed to bring Americans from all points on the political spectrum together in cafes, bookstores, churches and living rooms for lively, open-hearted dialogue to consider questions essential to the future of our democracy.

Utne-Cover-imageI was making room in NCDD’s filing cabinets last weekend (my kind of fun — I’m not joking), and came across a copy of a 2004 Utne Reader that I’d saved that featured an article and 2-page ad on the project.  I scanned them in, so please check them out!

It got me thinking about how the project went. My memory is fuzzy, and though NCDD became a key partner, we were brought in a little late in the game and I recall mainly playing a supportive role to the other partners, and of course doing outreach within the NCDD community to try to get people involved.

Perhaps others of you remember more?  I’ll ask Juanita Brown (World Cafe founder) and Susan Partnow (Conversation Cafe co-founder and project coordinator for LTA) to weigh in, though I think Susan’s in India at the moment. I’ll also see if Leif Utne can weigh in, as he was involved in the project and is still involved in NCDD.

After months of intensive planning and some initial startup funds, we accomplished quite a bit:

  • The cool button logo below (it looked even better at the time).
  • An interactive website that allowed people to sign up to facilitate or participate in a Let’s Talk America dialogue in their area, complete with a map to show where people had already signed on.
  • Lots of helpful, simple and easy-to-use resources, which we’ve archived in the NCDD Resource Center — including the LTA Hosting Manual, a tip sheet on framing questions and starting conversations in a way that isn’t polarizing, and my favorite little item, the LTA wallet card, a tiny “mini-manual” that introduced people to the project and explained the process and ground rules in a friendly, accessible way (we were able to do that as the project was centered around the use of the elegantly simple Conversation Cafe method so groups could easily self-organize).
  • I had forgotten all about this, but there was also a 12-page Let’s Talk America Cafe Hosting Guide created to help people host large-group LTA dialogues. This 12-page guide blends the Conversation Café and World Café approaches.
  • The 2-page ad mentioned above in a couple of issues of Utne Reader, along with an article or two in the magazine.
  • Looking over our older blog posts on Let’s Talk America, I’m reminded that host trainings were offered regularly via conference call for some time, and LTA organizers were featured on dozens of radio shows.
  • And lots of beautifully worded marketing language like this…

LTA reconnected with the “town hall” meeting spirit that’s the lifeblood of our democracy, providing opportunities for everyone to talk about America’s promise, about what freedom, democracy, unity and equality mean to us — to “we the people.” Let’s Talk America is a meeting ground where we can come together to listen, speak, ask and learn — without being forced to agree, change or bite our tongues.

Despite all of this, the project struggled to find its footing.  We couldn’t find funding to support the project beyond the initial creation phase and launch, which likely was the greatest hurdle, as the project needed a lot of support for admin, communications/PR, and technical assistance.  And we just couldn’t get enough of a critical mass of people to self-organize dialogues across the country to really gain traction.  My memory is really fuzzy here, but I think many of the dialogues that were held required a lot of Susan’s time to encourage, equip and manage them.  Our aspiration for “self-organized dialogues” never seemed to materialize. And once the initial push was over, it became harder and harder to connect the few people interested in holding local conversations.

Lately, with crises like Newtown making us all want to do something, and dialogue and deliberation seeming more needed than ever, more and more people in our field are interested in seeing a real national dialogue happen.  Not the kind of “national dialogue” that the media always says we’re having on the contentious issue of the day, or the frequent, empty calls for dialogues Carlos Lozada wrote about in his fascinating Washington Post editorial, “Please, President Obama. Not another ‘national conversation.’” But a real nationwide series of coordinated, facilitated, productive discussions — preferably of many different styles and variations, utilizing a variety of different dialogue and deliberation approaches.

NCDDers’ support for this was evident when you chose to support John Spady’s idea for a National Dialogue Network Infrastructure to win one of the Catalyst Awards last month.

I, too, have this hope and this vision.  But recalling Let’s Talk America, I wonder whether we’ve learned enough from our past attempts at coordinated large-scale discussions.  Particularly, I’m interested in learning more from NCDD members about what your criteria would be for actively participating in a national dialogue.  What would get you hosting something in YOUR community?  Or with your online tool (for our techy members)?  What tangible support would you need (discussion guides, organizing guides, funds, co-facilitators, etc.)?

And even more importantly, what intangibles would you need?  What would truly motivate you to get involved?

If you’ve gotten involved in national dialogue efforts in the past, what motivated you to step up?  If you decided against it, what held you back?  What would you hope to see in future efforts?

Please take a minute (or more!) to respond.  I, the NCDD Board, and many others in our field would love to learn from you about how best we can move forward on large-scale, distributed efforts together, with the involvement and commitment of as many NCDD members as possible.

Sandy Heierbacher on FacebookSandy Heierbacher on LinkedinSandy Heierbacher on Twitter
Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Tobin Quereau says:

    I was a participant and facilitator for a couple of sessions of Let’s Talk America here in Austin, TX. It fit in quite easily with the Conversation Cafe model of local dialogue sessions that I and a co-host have continued to offer a couple of times a month for the past 9 years.

    The materials and resources for Conversation Cafe (Susan and others developed some great materials which have been revised and updated since the early days) are great for the local focus sort of dialogue and I was impressed with what was done for the LTA initiative, as well. I think that what adds to the difficulty of such efforts on a “national” basis, however, is that the complexity is increased significantly when you try and coordinate at the larger level. For a few years the CC network held a National Dialogue Week (or something like that) and it, too, did not catch fire on more than a short term basis.

    I’m committed to the local gathering on a consistent basis, but am not very hopeful for a nationally coordinated effort. The energy just gets too diffused in my opinion. Providing some recommended themes or topics to ongoing or new groups would be fine, but to go further than that takes an immense amount of energy for an uncertain level of benefit.

    These are my recollections of that time, so I’ll be interested to hear what others say.

    Tobin Quereau
    Austin, Texas

    • Very interesting points, Tobin! I wonder what others think about your statement “Providing some recommended themes or topics to ongoing or new groups would be fine, but to go further than that takes an immense amount of energy for an uncertain level of benefit.”

      NCDD has supported a number of our members’ national dialogue efforts over the years and will continue to do that, but perhaps a Coalition activity could be to identify one timely issue each year and encourage people in the network to engage in dialogue around that issue as they see fit (in addition to all their other work)? We could be sure to make all the resources we’re aware of on that issue (dialogue guides, discussion-prompting videos, etc.) easy to get to. And we could provide a space for collecting stories, results, and reports on what people have done (and do some work to collate and theme those results — with NCDDers’ help). We could also encourage NCDD members to share what they’re learning about engaging people in that issue, on the listserv, blog, conference calls, etc.

      Would this “keep-it-simple” approach to national dialogue be something others would be interested in? What would be the downside of such an approach?

      • Kim Crowley says:

        In many cases, the greatest energy requirement probably comes from recruiting participants and scheduling. Social media might make that easier now than in 2004, although that was probably more true a year ago.

        LTA could work well as an add-on for programs that already have an audience. My subjective impression says that the biggest mountain to climb in getting individuals to participate in LTA is the dominant stereotype of issue discussion (public or private) as a futile and frustrating endeavor. We’re working on that, but in the mean time, any help with recruiting participants would be the greatest enabler for me.

      • Kim – I’m curious about one thing you said: “Social media might make that [recruiting participants and scheduling] easier now than in 2004, although that was probably more true a year ago.” Why would that be more true a year ago than now? Just curious.

      • Michael Briand says:

        SH: “…perhaps a Coalition activity could be to identify one timely issue each year and encourage people in the network to engage in dialogue around that issue as they see fit (in addition to all their other work)?”

        MB: I thought I had floated this idea once, Sandy, and people expressed skepticism about the readiness of NCDD members to participate. If in fact not many members would do so, that would be rather ironic, I think, but also worth investigating. Why would people committed to D&D be reluctant to engage in it themselves?

      • Great question, Michael! Yes, this is an idea that comes around regularly. I think there are a lot of reasons why NCDD members potentially wouldn’t participate en mass… they may be already focused on other issues and can’t take on more work (organizations and individuals both are often in this situation); they may need to focus on paying gigs and can’t devote time to volunteering to self-organize a conversation; they may have already run programs focused on the issue we picked, and aren’t motivated to revisit that issue; they may not agree on the issue chosen; they may already be working on another large-scale issue/project.

        Some of the possible reasons people might hesitate have been outlined in this conversation, like the desire NOT to have to do the recruiting and publicizing work as well as the facilitation/hosting work.

    • David Kimball says:

      I wanted to reply to Tobin Quereau’s post, but when I hit the Reply button, it brought me all the way down to the bottom of all the posts. I don’t know if this reply will be positioned afterwards, or appear as the last post. I would suggest some technical support be supplied to clear this question up for future posts and replies.

      I agreed with Tobin in that what it takes for us to get our own participants leaves us all dressed up with no audience. I hosted some LTA’s in their early years. I also hosted a Conversation Cafe for a few years in their early years. In both instances, we needed to market our services. As a result, not only were the number paltry, but they also tended to be stratified – most of th people were like me. Not because they were my friends and I invited them personally, but because I am representative of a group of people who will respond to such invitations. As were these people. No matter how hard I tried, I could not bring conservatives to the table.

      I thought that the above post from LTA might solve that by letting me be a participant without the organizational effort required. I was disappointed. I volunteered for a chat session and never heard from LTA as far as giving me a person to chat with. I’m going to guess that most of the people responding to this offer are also like me and so LTA didn’t have anyone available who was not like me to chat with.

      I’m still looking for opportunities to get involved and participate, but where I am not expected to do the marketing work.

      David Kimball

      • If you click “reply” on someone’s existing comment (or comment on a comment), you are sent to the box at the bottom of the page, but WordPress knows what you’re commenting on and your additions will be added where you intend. I’ll look into ways we can make that more apparent, without adding much more text.

  2. Marti Roach says:

    Hi Sandy –

    This is a great blog and timely for me. Last month, two friends and I launched a conversation salon in our local town (actually a conglomeration of three towns) in the San Francisco “outer” East Bay Area. the response was amazing and with limited invites we had 26 people come with aroused interest in ongoing conversation about national topics. Our initial topic was hopes and concerns for 2013. Climate change and gun/community violence were probably the most mentioned topics. We are currently planning our next salon for April and exploring venturing into larger sized events.

    Conversation salons or dialogues like this at the community level brings immediate benefits of widening the web at the local level of folks who want to talk and act to make a difference. many in attendance were already civically and politically active; many were not but wanted to and felt motivated by meeting others right in their community who felt the same way.

    I would love to hear if others are doing this work locally and would like to consider how we could launch a national conversation on the same theme and find ways to leverage and iterate voices.

    Marti Roach Consulting
    Center for Strategic Facilitation

  3. Lucas Cioffi says:

    As a civic tech entrepreneur, I know my company would be happy to participate, but if the model for rolling this out nationally required us to do the work to host our own conversation, it would leave us dressed for a party yet standing there lacking just one thing: an audience.

    Currently, we provide our tools as infrastructure for organizations that have an existing audience of members/employees/customers/constituents. So if the model for a distributed national dialogue paired tech firms like us up with groups that have audiences, then it would have a greater chance of success.

    I imagine in-person facilitators face a similar challenge with outreach. So perhaps this requires a role in addition to an online/offline facilitator: an outreach specialist? That certainly requires different skills; not all outreach specialists are dialogue facilitators and vice versa. I’m guessing that the more places for different people to plug into the effort and focus on doing one thing well, the healthier the ecosystem will be.

    • Good point, Lucas — it certainly would be more work if you were asked to recruit participants on your own. So getting the right partner organizations who could mobilize their members to participate would be key. I would think this would be the case whether you were hosting a dialogue on an online tool OR face-to-face.

  4. A.B. says:

    Great questions, Sandy. What would get me hosting something in my community is a genuine opportunity for TRANSformational conversation, not just more INformational conversation. We all have more information than we know what to do with, and facilitating the swapping of information and opinions interests me not at all. I honor those who do that work, but it’s not my work. Hosting transformational conversation takes something distinct. It takes getting out of our own way as hosts; knowing our “buttons” inside and out and setting them aside in service of a greater purpose. It takes setting a clear intention for how folks will be left at the end of the session and taking every action (or non-action) inside of that intention with no attachment to outcome. It takes listening for what really matters to people and reflecting that back in a way that they (and others) can hear newly. It takes impeccable holding of the container in which curiosity, creativity, honesty, honoring, safety and exploration can flourish. I would only step in to host a local event related to a national series of events if I trusted that the organizers had done their own work, had set intentions I wholeheartedly supported, and had THAT kind of space at heart. Thanks for asking!

    • Thanks for clarifying what it would take for you, A.B. You definitely set the bar high! Have you gotten involved in any large-scale programs in the past? I’d love to hear details about any projects that were able to draw in your involvement.

  5. Jon Denn says:

    I think the issue is conservatives don’t just “wanna chat.” Carl Dudley, may he rest in peace, used to talk about relational churches and rigorous ones. They attract like congregants. I think it’s the same with progressives and conservatives. If there’s something in it for conservatives I think they will come to the table. If not it’s just progressives going over all the same talking points, again and again. Here’s an example, recent polls show that a vast majority of Americans DO want to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, but somehow the narrative in DC went from jobs before the election to this crazy deficit fear-mongering after. If there were a facilitated national conversation about countercyclical infrastructure spending/jobs (and gov’t contracts for private sector companies!)—that might be the catalyst for a truly popular bipartisan/nonpartisan discussion. I’d be into hosting that discussion in my local community. There were even some conservatives in Congress that wanted the funds administered by the States, which is certainly not a deal-breaker for progressives. This is a winnable topic. Maybe it’s all about the topic, as long as there is a vision of a possible deliverable.
    Cheers, Jon

    • Interesting insights, Jon — thank you for this! I know your work has turned you into a content expert for numerous contentious issues.

    • Susan Partnow says:

      This has been my experience: conversatives are not attracted to dialogue but want ACTION. On the other hand… perhapds even engaging ‘like minded’ folks in meaningful dialogue on important topics is worthwhile: there is no monolithic ‘left’ or group of progressives…

  6. Tree Bressen says:

    Gosh i so hear you on this one, Sandy; i’ve been through similar things myself, as an organizer. So it’s a great question: what, right now, for me personally, would motivate me to take part in something like this?

    Well, let’s see . . . i’m just gonna think out loud here, ok?

    If it felt more like fun than work. If it was more like a party and less like a meeting. If i knew my friends would be there. Or if i were meeting new people, but with the opportunity to go genuinely deep. If i could just show up and facilitate easily without having to do advance organizing and outreach.

    I’m really busy, i already have multiple groups i’m involved with and existing commitments to fulfill. I often feel behind on what i already have going, so i’m reluctant to take on anything new.

    However, it’s worth noting that was also true in fall of 2011, and yet i–along with thousands of others–made space in my life for Occupy. Why? Because it felt compellingly important. It felt like there was this moment of OPENING in the culture at large, we stepped into the possibility of transformation together. I was born in 1970, so that was the first time in my life in the US that had ever happened. That doorway did not remain open, and we did not collectively walk through it, but it left a taste of freedom in our mouths (along with some bittersweetness for those who felt disappointed in the results).

    In other words, i’d participate if i had a legitimate reason to believe it would actually make a difference in some significant way. Which is a tall order.

    • You’re right – that is a tall order, Tree! But I appreciate you outlining those needs. I suspect many others in our community can relate to your post in many ways. They’re very busy with projects already, they want any extra projects to feel fun, meaningful, do-able, and potentially impactful. Does Tree’s post resonate with others?

      I also hear you echoing Lucas’ point about needing to NOT have to conduct a ton of organizing and outreach.

      • Kim Crowley says:

        Tree’s post does resonate strongly. Everyone’s busy, so new projects are more compelling if they come either with fun or money if not both.

        I think Occupy had tremendous effects that are not necessarily well-recognized. I’m sure there are oodles of spin-off projects that came about because people gathered in one place and connected. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good way to see the ripples, so many people are left with a sense of futility when they think about Occupy as one entity.

    • Susan Partnow says:

      I like the idea of keeping it FUN and easy… Maybe a one-time ‘Occupy Cafes (or pubs?!) for Conversation’… Take a lesson from Flash-mobs ?

  7. Evelyn says:


    “Large-scale discussions” take place every day on the web, riven though they are with partisan arguing. And the media regularly create “national dialogues” in which (as you pointed out) pundits argue, supposedly on our behalf. What’s missing, of course, is the “facilitated, productive” part.

    But so long as this crucial “facilitated, productive” part is left out of media, and can only take place in physical gatherings, it’s a losing battle. I suspect the idea of large meetings of human bodies has come to feel passe, awkward and unnecessary to most people. What’s worse, the media do not recognize the need for facilitated dialogue (which would be counter-productive to their aim of generating conflict).

    So if in-person meetings and mass media won’t work, but your aim is to have “large-scale discussions” and “national dialogues”, there’s only one choice: to integrate facilitation into online discourse. But what we’ve all discovered is that facilitation doesn’t work in text-based communication. I don’t mean this as self-promotion, but our Real Dialogues project, which will use face-to-face facilitated video meetings, is a chance to test one possible solution – and NCDD is courageous to support it. I hope everyone who responds to your post contributes creative ideas on using media for facilitation.

    Finally, one caveat: Tree brought up Occupy as an example of something that she was enthusiastic enough about to spend time on. You can say the same about Tea Party: people wanted to meet in person with the politically like-minded in both cases. This could happen again, but the polarized nature of these movements was antithetical to the goals of D&D. And let’s remember that these movements were largely organized online and their growth was driven by mass media (MSNBC or Fox News). Someday, political movements that unite us may bring everyone together in person – but it will be because people like you guys have done the work online!

    • You said a lot of provocative things there, Evelyn! Do others agree with some/all of Evelyn’s points?

      One thing you said is “I suspect the idea of large meetings of human bodies has come to feel passe, awkward and unnecessary to most people.” I sure hope that’s not true! Our field values those kinds of meetings, and most of us have not found an online tool or technique that comes close to replicating the benefits of well-run face-to-face meetings.

      You also noted that “facilitation doesn’t work in text-based communication.” I would actually strongly disagree with that statement. I think facilitation is critically important for successful online engagement — like what can be generated on listservs, Facebook groups, forums, blogs, etc. Facilitators are needed to prompt discussion, make sure people feel heard, ask generative questions, summarize tons of input, report back on outcomes, weed out ugly/inappropriate posts and spam, and more. Even on the most well-developed online tools, I’ve found that the role of the facilitator or moderator is still a key component for a productive discussion. Can you say more about what you meant by that, Evelyn?

  8. In response to your general and more specific questions regarding involvement in national dialogue I would like to offer my thoughts.

    If you’ve gotten involved in national dialogue efforts in the past, what motivated you to step up?

    I’m a full time psychiatrist with a hobby in civic engagement and citizenship. Interest addressing the many challenges in our healthcare system, has led me to get more engaged in the political realm.


    I participated (hosted) in a house meeting on healthcare coordinated by the Obama/Biden transition team.

    I attended the first town meeting about healthcare reform at the Constitution Center with (deceased) then senator Spector and the Secty. of HHS, Sebelius, where I first experienced the passion of the emerging “tea party”.

    I participated in American Speaks event about the budget sponsored by the Peterson Foundation.

    Additionally I participated and/or followed, numerous discussions about healthcare reform sponsored by various organizations on C-Span, The Economist, New York Times and WSJ and multiple other publications.

    Most recently, I organized “A National Conversation on Health Care” at “People’s Plaza” in Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, PA. http://www.citizens4health.org/Health-of-the-Nation

    If you decided against it, what held you back?

    What I have found in most of the programs that I attended is a lack of interest in facts. Very poor understanding of adult learning needs and as such very poor use of information tools to improve dialogue. Additionally, it appeared that the meeting organizes had their agenda (Especially America Speaks events and Obama House meetings) and when the meeting was over very limited follow up, other than to beef up their positions. For some the event is the actual end point.

    What would you hope to see in future efforts?

    I’m continuing in my efforts to improve the healthcare system, starting with a vision, understanding the barriers that exist to achieve it. (I have realized that unless we address the role of money and influence by special interests, all the citizen engagement is mostly a waste of time). I have come to realize that the way physicians address symptoms and diseases (especially cancer) is a useful framework to engage citizens in reclaiming our democracy.

    I submitted an entry to the Catalyst Awards: Using the medical case presentation (MCP) for deliberative dialogue that provides a brief overview for our plans.

    Any way I have rambled on too much,

    Thanks for all the work you are doing with NCCD

    You can contact me to learn more of our efforts

    Enjoy your day

    • Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed response, Shimon! There is so much we could go into, and maybe others will pose some questions for you. But for now, I’m curious about one thing you said:

      “when the meeting was over very limited follow up, other than to beef up their positions. For some the event is the actual end point.”

      Assuming a national dialogue process is truly open to all perspectives and not focused on pushing through a specific agenda, I wonder what kind of follow up you (and others) would see as being effective? A report summarizing learnings from various dialogues across the country is an obvious way to follow up to a series of one-time events. But what might be more satisfying / meaningful / helpful for participants?

  9. I’ve been thinking back to the original hopes we had when we who were stewarding the World Cafe joined with Conversation Cafes and NCDD to foster national dialogues across partisan lines with Let’s Talk America (and later to support Joseph McCormick and the Reuniting America initiative).

    To me, one of the major learnings of that effort (and I share Sandy’s observations) was not so much getting gatherings to happen–which had limited success because of all the partisan dynamics and self-organizing dilemmas others have mentioned–but also that to have a truly national scale conversation may require (I’m just brainstorming off the top of my head):

    -LOCAL communities and/or neighborhoods (the locus of large scale systems change for the future, I think) to find whatever the national topic is compelling and relevant at the local level. Gun violence, for example, might be that kind of issue for many local communities.

    – ARCHITECTURES OF ENGAGEMENT WITH COMMON FRAMING AND QUESTIONS while using diverse methodologies. Bruce Schuman’s reflections on the use of community as the core unit of democracy within an “inspiriting” frame offer one beautiful doorway in this regard.

    -OPTIONS TO CONNECT VIA TECH PLATFORMS that are now available. For example, I’ve participated in global womens as well as global business summits that had many hundreds of people participating from dozens of countries and communities on the Maestro Conference platform (and I’m sure there are other great ones)…in ways that were both intimate AND large scale. They, however, did not have infrastructures for harvesting in place as that was not their intent.

    -INFRASTRUCTURE FOR HARVESTING the key ideas and themes that are expressed. Carolyn’s AmericaSpeaks does this in real time–but for local conversations to have impact, the outcomes and perspectives offered would need to be harvested, synthesized, and connected.

    -THE REAL POSSIBILITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE — Local community members would need to feel that not only were their conversations relevant to their own local situation, but that what they generated was part of something larger that could make a difference at the national level if they participated in linked conversations. I recall a situation not too long ago that related to the national policy on homelessness….and within a couple of weeks, conversations were organized in a number of US cities using a variety of methodologies (through the Art of Hosting and World Cafe communities of practice) that helped to shape policy going forward.

    -PRACTICAL/INNOVATIVE IDEAS– there would need to be opportunities to both contribute to and learn from others about practical paths forward and out of the box solutions that might be useful across local communities as well as at the national level.

    –INTERGENERATIONAL PARTICIPATION — there is something about having multiple generations in the conversation that shifts the dynamics in these gatherings. Having “the next generations” present, especially if the youngers also have process skills makes “the olders” somehow more respectful.

    -NEW MEDIA ENGAGEMENT — I’m not sophisticated in this area, but it seems that creating the “buzz” could be enhanced, especially across generations through these means.

    –RESOURCING FOR EARLY EXPERIMENTS — Sandy, you mentioned the dilemmas in resourcing our early Let’s Talk America initiative. There was some initial support (if I recall from Fetzer) for materials development, but not for the kind of infrastructure for harvesting the knowledge coming from the dialogues, nor for the training of local hosts etc.

    These are initial thoughts late in the evening after a long day. I’d love to hear others perspectives on what you feel might be the minimum elegant requirements for successful national conversations that would have people across the country on the edge of their seats, wanting to both contribute to and learn from what other communities are sharing and discovering.

    Thanks Sandy, for initiating this conversation!

    With warm regards,

    (Co-Founder of The World Cafe)

    • Hello Juanita and everyone else,

      I have been collaborating with a number of people in our field to design an initiative that aligns closely with Juanita’s post. It is based on the convergence of online and face-to-face projects I have done with Prof. Janette Hartz-Karp in Australia over the last 7 years, as well as projects like the Catalyst Awards online platform I designed with & for NCDD.

      While there are many ways to diagnose and approach our challenges. A few weeks ago I was using the phrase “we the people need the ability to speak with a collective voice,” but some people suggested “collective” was a loaded term and overall the idea was vague. Hopefully this is better and explains why the collective voice matters:

      Finding and implementing sustainable solutions requires the insight, cooperation, and support of everyone affected. So we’ve designed an approach that gives everyone the opportunity to collaborate in the marketplace of ideas that is democracy.

      CivicEvolution uses web, mobile, and face-to-face activities and applications to help people come together around their shared concerns in meaningful conversations where they can understand their differences and pursue their mutual interests through practical cooperation. Our approach encourages collaboration among constituents while easing the burden and risk for officials.

      We’re outsourcing democracy from the officials back to the people.

      I am working with Janette and several others to develop this approach and I welcome the input and collaboration of anyone that is interested in this approach.

      We are using technology to organize face-to-face conversations (imagine a more convenient, issue oriented meetup.com), harvest the output of the conversations, track the ideas and provide reports that allow people to follow and authenticate the organic growth of these ideas in the community. People can participate via online conversations, conference calls and video chats if they prefer. They can also participate without relying on technology whatsoever. We want to create seamless integration with many different D&D processes, all contributing to a community pool of ideas for each issue/question. We expect to see ideas that resonate in the community emerge from the ongoing conversations and other D&D processes. Our goal is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate. This diagram shows what we mean by collecting ideas from the community–ideas that are always the result of informed, reflective and respectful conversations. We aren’t just collecting opinions, comments and poll results.

      We’d really appreciate any feedback and collaboration. This project has been submitted as a Knight News Challenge Project: http://bit.ly/ce_knight

      You can also see a more detailed explanation of this design: http://bit.ly/think-together

      I’m looking forward to hearing from you.


    • Juanita. You make so much sense. My background is in public relations and my academic pursuits on futures studies and communications have led me to believe that the future of public relations in democracies is a wicked problem.

      Deb Ganderton
      City of Boroondara

    • Cheri Torres says:

      Great idea. I especially love the intergenerational piece. Wondering if we could bring NPR in as a partner and they could do Let’s talk America spots similar to this I believe. Powerful bridging conversations could become part of their archives.

      Cheri Torres
      Innovation Partners International

    • Susan Partnow says:

      Love your suggestions here… The Multi Generational inclusion is absolutely essential.

  10. I just read through the responses on this thread — and I want quickly offer an idea that is emerging for me on this theme.

    More or less – the idea is: the hope for developing a new all-perspectives balanced national political conversation that pulls together “all sides of all issues in a graceful well-mediated and informed creative dialogue” – is a noble thing, and probably a goal many of us share. Many, I think, would argue that not only is this kind of conversation desirable – but maybe essential if we are to keep our national governance healthy and in balance. And something like this dialogue becomes technically feasible if nurtured or coordinated through an internet-based “national dialogue infrastructure”. The internet today can support such things, and NCDD has convened a number of programmers and technical developers working in this area. And, I would guess, many of us are hoping that a national movement could be incubated through the collaborative work of NCDD visionaries and developers, reaching out in many directions, identifying “what works”, and pulling these pieces into a national integrated framework that might connect many “community conversations” or special-purpose issue-centric discussions.

    There is a lot bubbling up on these themes – a lot of new ideas and initiatives. One important area might be “slow democracy”, as introduced here a month or so ago. http://slowdemocracy.org/ There are several groups here in Santa Barbara that are exploring overlapping aspects of this approach. How can all this idealistic motivation and hopeful energy be catalyzed into an effective national movement?

    Spearheading an opening

    The way this looks to me is – what is probably needed is a way to “build a buzz” – about something people can believe in. In a prevailing national context of apathy and anger, start getting people excited and believing that “something new and hopeful is emerging” and get them to show up – or at least agree to connect or participate in a minimal way. Do this by identifying individuals and groups already at the creative edge of collaborative community, and start forging an alliance there. Today, as far as I can tell, what often tends to happen is that idealistic developers want to go directly to partisan groups and invite representatives to a common table. Joseph McCormick has been doing this for years, and I had a good discussion with “Let’s Talk America” co-coordinator Leif Utne before one of Joseph’s meetings a couple of years ago in Seattle. This is certainly important and pioneering work.

    But taking this direct route is difficult. It’s confrontational, depends on excellent mediation, and can quickly overload on the “too many issues at once” problem. Yes, people can get to know each other, and the broader vision does move forward – slowly. But issues are so complex today, and so heated and so interdependent, and there are so many of them, it can be difficult or impossible to move beyond the initial introductory stages when we initiate the project by directly bringing highly diverse stakeholders to a common table in a point-blank way with a limited time-frame.

    The idea that is gradually emerging for me – is that the strategy for developing national transpartisan dialogue might be much stronger if it unfolds from a vision of community that is presented as a new hope for American democracy, as based on the ideals of “unity in diversity” and the creativity inherent in diversity, etc. So, this strategy might be organized under a name like “The Spirit of Community” (as per the book by Amitai Etzioni), and might be initiated through the sensitive development of a kind of community alliance based on acknowledging the core values of community. Rather than attempting to directly weld contending forces into a single conversation, the group might emerge with a natural inherent affinity among its membership, and an inspirational body of central core agreements that could be explicitly identified.

    This kind of group might be developed as a network of community agencies and churches concerned with the broad ideals of community, who recognize the value of diversity, and emerge with a kind of secular/spiritual vision for local and national health in a climate of diversity, based on enlightened common ground. If this kind of visionary core alliance could be formed within a local community, it could then act as a convener for specific hot-button issues emerging within the community. Seen this way, this work would be a kind of “pastoral mission to democracy” – bringing healing and vision and wisdom to our fractious and fragmented governance.

    And this approach, I am guessing, would be replicable at regional or national levels, as this “new hope for democracy based on community” grew in strength, recognition and credibility. It could incorporate the diverse ideals of contending groups today (freedom versus responsibility”, etc.) in its fundamental definition, and present itself as consistent with the highest ideals of American tradition.

    What I like about this approach is that it begins by identifying common ideals, and is intended to grow over time through a gradual process of inclusion based on personal relationships and a growing recognition of this new (yet ancient) vision of community as the core ideal of democracy. It is not bluntly confrontational, and every step can be approached through a kind of mediated diplomacy that recognizes concerns and reassures diverse stakeholders that their perspective is being heard and received. Developed this way, it can expand its breadth of inclusion in a step-by-step bridge-building process that creates liaison between groups that today may be confrontationally divided.

    My own instinct is to start at what might be described as the “spiritual core of community” – perhaps mediated through a kind of interfaith or “interspiritual” network of churches, spiritual groups, and community agencies with spiritual or community-centric overtones. This work could be seen as developing a new vision for The Spirit of Community – informed by sources that are secular and humanistic (and even atheistic) as well as spiritual and religious, and based on a kind of emerging common ground that – as some of us see it – is just beginning to appear in the framework of the American national conversation.

    One visionary new book on this subject is The Coming Interspiritual Age, by Kurt Johnson and Robert Ord.

    The authors have put together a very attractive full-color 200-page “Ezine” about the themes of the book at http://issuu.com/yorkmin/docs/the_coming_interspiritual_age

    This book is a very hopeful – and, I believe, realistic – overview of an emerging new common ground in religion and spirituality, offering a powerful and profound new approach to understanding “the heart of community”. This new approach is still in formation, yes – but it’s becoming clearer – and I’d say it makes a strong contribution towards bridging the very challenging tension between “the secular” and “the sacred”, through a process that refines values into a simple universal form that emerges as a kind of connective tissue between otherwise widely diverse and even oppositional groups and ideologies.

    A starting point…

    So, seen this way, a long-range strategy for developing a comprehensive national dialogue infrastructure might begin by developing a “vision of community” that is comprehensive and balanced, and through that core vision, begin to develop a kind of broad community alliance that can then act as a mediator and facilitator for the hundreds or thousands of issues and the endlessly diverse perspectives on those issues that are presently overloading and dividing and fragmenting (and gridlocking) the American process of informed self-governance….

    Bruce Schuman
    (805) 966-9515 Santa Barbara
    http://interspirit.net | http://sharedpurpose.net | http://bridgeacrossconsciousness.net

    • John Backman says:

      Hi, Bruce.

      You wrote: “My own instinct is to start at what might be described as the “spiritual core of community” – perhaps mediated through a kind of interfaith or “interspiritual” network of churches, spiritual groups, and community agencies with spiritual or community-centric overtones. This work could be seen as developing a new vision for The Spirit of Community – informed by sources that are secular and humanistic (and even atheistic) as well as spiritual and religious, and based on a kind of emerging common ground that – as some of us see it – is just beginning to appear in the framework of the American national conversation.”

      As always, you’ve laid out a fascinating vision, and I think it may have legs. Just to add a couple of pieces for your reflection:

      1. I’ve long believed (and this is why I wrote Why Can’t We Talk?) is that people of faith have an important role to play in creating dialogue, because they are the inheritors of traditions that emphasize two critical ingredients: the spirit of community, as you rightly point out, but also the inner transformation that reorients them toward compassion, relationship, etc.—i.e., key “heart attitudes” for dialogue.

      2. I see a lot of potential for that “emerging common ground” you mention. The more I read, the more I discover how many fundamental beliefs/virtues/values most of us hold in common—not only across faith traditions, but between spiritual and secular. As you say, we’ve just barely begun to mine this vein, so devoting more attention to it could yield substantial results.

      Thanks, Bruce, for putting this forward.

      • Bruce, I really resonate with your idea- “The idea that is gradually emerging for me – is that the strategy for developing national transpartisan dialogue might be much stronger if it unfolds from a vision of community that is presented as a new hope for American democracy, as based on the ideals of “unity in diversity” and the creativity inherent in diversity, etc”. And as Pete Peterson’s endorsement of Slow Democracy reflects, touches values across the political spectrum. But language is important. I couldnt help but notice that Pete uses “federalism” and decentralization, the work of citizenship ….not “community” which I think is (unfortunately) heard as the Left’s language. Some Tea Party folks like “self governance” – http://citizens4selfgovernance.org/about/. Point is it’s a meeting place and we should make the effort to insure that’s what we mean – that we share a common instinct about where the source of renewal of our system of governance is located. The Abundant Community network for me is another bubbling up -having an upcoming conference called. Community4Community. Thought not necessarily in a linear way I think this pathway deals more realistically with power than does process alone. People making good things happen will naturally resist power that wants to relegate them to passive and consumerist roles.

    • Susan Partnow says:

      Intriguing proposal… AND it works with a given infrastructure, i.e. church congregations that exist – which is essential to manage the outreach challenges…

  11. Eric Smiley says:

    Hi Sandy,
    I appreciate all the good work you are doing. I believe that if you want growth in participation you will do better by offering some unique features. One that I would like to see is word summary analytics. For example which words are increasingly being used in posts. Nouns and verbs. Which are on the decline. And perhaps a listing of those postings where I can watch discussions evolve. There are many ways discussion analysis can contribute to the focus and deliberation of issues and you might be able to handle higher volumes needed in national discussions with tools allowing users to sift through the material.

    • Eric – is discussion analytics something you specialize in? If so, I’d love to chat sometime soon and learn more about the tools you use and how they’ve worked so far. Intriguing ideas!

      • Eric Smiley says:

        Hi Sandy,
        Discussion analytics is an evolving field dominated (I assume) by companies such as google, facebook and Twitter which have the volume required for statistical significance. One way it is possible to handle with more limited volume would be to perhaps combine a number of online issue discssion venues and analyze the info together. I do have data analysis experience but no programming skills execute such a plan.

        I am available at your convenience to discuss the possibilities.


  12. Eric Smiley says:

    Let me go a little further Sand.
    There is a feeling, which I disagree with, that society is more partisan and divided than ever. My opinion is that we are making great, fantastic progress in our dialogue and deliberation. I remember the 1960s and 1970s as much more acrimonious than anything today. Discussion is more focused and intelligent now than ever before. This idea that everyone should “participate” does not recognize listening as perhaps the most critical element of participation. Witness the uproar over the demise of Google’s Reader as an example of peoples desire to listen. The fact is that in the glory days of town hall meetings, may people were pleased to sit and listen, everyone didn’t want or need to say somethi
    The growth and opportunity available to us now is in more clearly identifying what the true issues are. What are the discussions with the most “no”, “can’t”, or “shouldn’t” in them about? How about those with “yes”, “shoud” or “need”? The biggest achievement would be to educate more about the nuances and specifics of current issues.

  13. Kim Crowley says:

    I was extremely excited when I learned about Let’s Talk America from Utne reader. My personal experience with LTA was that the materials and Susan’s training via conference call were great, but communication around logistics left much to be desired. I tried to participate in an event before attempting to recruit an audience to host my own. I signed up and invited a friend to meet me there. We each drove over 9o minutes to participate. When we arrived at the designated address, no one answered the door. When I got back home I double-checked the information I had written down. Everything was correct. There had been no last-minute email announcing any change. I tried to follow up to find out what happened, but never found out anything. I don’t know whether my difficulties were unique, but if others experienced similar disconnection, that might explain the lack of energy to move the project forward.

    • Oh that’s terrible, Kim! I don’t remember hearing about that. So this highlights the importance of working closely with the organizers/hosts of dispersed dialogues. I think paying those folks a stipend would make a big difference as well; everyone is more accountable when a little bit of money is at stake.

    • Susan Partnow says:

      Terrible indeed! So sorry to hear this sad tale: there was indeed no way to monitor or confirm what hosts posted on the LTA site. Perhaps with advanced technology these days there could be a way to automatically get hosts to confirm and if they don’t respond, a warning or cancellation could get posted if such an online/self organizing system were to be attempted…

  14. David Kimball says:

    I’m not sure where this will post, but I hope it’s a new thread and not posted as a Reply.

    After reading many of the posts and replies above, I see that there are many that voiced (much better than I) how that we want to participate but it seems we only have the opportunities to participate to like-minded individuals so we re-mix what we have heard and said and leave the table with no more than we came to it. And that is NOT the definition of dialogue where we will leave the table with MORE than we came.

    I would like to suggest something to address this problem. What if these dialogues were sponsored by our US Representatives. They are in position where they have a responsibility to people of both parties (and others) and can reach out and encourage the involvement of all sides of an issue. This would be sponsored by the US Rep but it would be run by people trained in dialogue discussions. The US Rep would use this as a way of hearing and listening to his/her constituents. The objective would NOT be for the US Rep to present their ides but only to listen to both sides of an issue. I believe that these US Reps present the best way to gather an audience of diverse ideas and to then have a true dialogue where we learn.

    I have come up with a quote of my own: It is not the strongest argument, nor the most convincing argument, nor the most logical argument that we should adhere to. But rather it is the argument that shows the most understanding of the other side.

  15. I’ve been reading these posts thinking about what it takes to “merely” organize a city-wide distributed dialogue on a common theme or topic. It seems like any national dialogue will have to use local infrastructures for dialogue. So perhaps we need to start by understanding what it takes to get city-wide dialogue right.

    So one thing I would really love to know more about is how well city-wide dialogues have worked — particularly those that were distributed among multiple locations and organizations. I know several have been organized, but I don’t know much about their outcomes. When they were judged a success, what did “success” look like and how did that happen? When they flopped, what went wrong?

    • Hi Janice…
      Great insight re: the scaling process and your questions are excellent. Do others have ideas re: Janice’s inquiry?

    • This is indeed a great question, Janice!! I think our friends at Everyday Democracy might be some of the best equipped I know to answer this question. They provide a lot of training, technical assistance, guidebooks, and other kinds of support to communities interested in running “community-wide dialogue to action efforts” (formerly called “community-wide study circles”).

      Success looks different in different communities, of course, but if I had to answer your question I’d say that success looks like multiple new, motivated, empowered groups of diverse citizens who are determined to improve their community based on the discussions that took place — and some institutional support (funds, staff time, etc.) to support them over the long haul.

      Take a look at the publication “Organizing Community-wide Dialogue for Action and Change” at http://www.everyday-democracy.org/en/Resource.39.aspx for examples, tips, and more. I’ll see if I can get some Everyday Democracy folks to chime in here.

    • Ooh – and here’s a good one… there’s a chart online that the Center for Assessment and Policy Development created for Everyday Democracy called “Communities Creating Racial Equity: Sample Goals & Indicators of Outcomes. We have it on the site at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/3849.

      Of course, if we’re going to really get into outcomes and evaluation here, we should think about starting a new discussion just on that. But definitely don’t miss Tina Nabatchi’s awesome report “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation” at https://ncdd.org/rc/item/6191.

  16. I spent some time over the weekend summarizing this rich discussion — as well as a great phone call I had with Juanita Brown, Susan Partnow and Vicki Robin (the main organizers of Let’s Talk America). Please check out that document at https://ncdd.org/main/wp-content/uploads/LearningsFromLetsTalkAmerica.pdf — and keep adding comments here so we can learn even more!

  17. Lots of great input, everyone.

    During the design of a national dialogue, one thing I’d focus on is the kind of experience we need to create for individual participants in order for them to feel part of a larger effort. What is it about a national dialogue that’s particularly exciting or interesting, and how do we enable participants to tap into that?

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